When Junior Valentine enrolled in the Wendelstedt Umpire School in 2011 he had never umpired a pitch.
A couple of months later, he was umpiring in the minor leagues. This baseball season, Valentine will be a full-time major league umpire.
"I had a dream of being a major league umpire since I was a kid," Valentine said. "Now I'm at the highest level in the world. It's crazy for me to think about."
Ten major league umpires announced their retirements after last season. Five of their replacements are Wendelstedt graduates. In addition to Valentine, the others are Erich Bacchus, Nick Mahrley, Alex Tosi and Malachi Moore.
"I had a dream of being a major league umpire since I was a kid. Now, I'm at the highest level in the world. It's crazy for me to think about."
— JUNIOR VALENTINE
Valentine played baseball at Maryville (Tennessee) College, but he said he knew he wasn't good enough to play in the big leagues. But that didn't mean he couldn't be part of the action on a big-league field.
Valentine has been the chief instructor at the Wendelstedt Umpire School at the Ormond Beach Sports Complex for the past four years. Last summer, he was an umpire in Triple-A baseball. He has umpired in 235 major league games as a call-up umpire.
Bacchus, who is also on the school's staff, said being named a full-time major league umpire is "life changing. That's probably the best way to describe it."
He has been a minor league ump since 2012 and has 234 games of major league experience in addition to serving in the instant replay booth in New York. Bacchus has been on the school's staff since 2016.
"Typically, I'm running a field, or assisting new instructors in how to run a field," he said.
Bacchus said the school teaches as if the student umps never umpired or even played baseball before. They teach the rules of the game in a classroom setting and then they go out on the fields, learning rotations and responsibilities. On Saturday, Jan. 21, they were simulating games where students were taking on the roles of players and umpires.
Jonathon Rector of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is in his second year as a student at the school. He celebrated his 22nd birthday on Jan. 19 at the school. When he was umpiring locally he was told he was a natural and should pursue it professionally.
"So here I am," he said. "They have everything I wanted. You definitely get major league training from the first pitch."
Last summer, Rector umpired in the Northwoods League, a summer collegiate league.
John Landis, a first-year student, has been umpiring in northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania for two-and-half years in 18-and-under baseball showcases and recreation league baseball and softball.
"I've learned a lot of good stuff here, like proper positioning, proper mechanics and footwork," he said.
The school runs from Jan. 2 to Feb. 2. Hunter Wendelstedt, a second-generation, major league umpire, took over the school from his father, Harry, who died in 2012. Hunter Wendelstedt has been a major league ump since 1998.
This year, the school has three female students, and a student from Nigeria, the first African to attend the school, Wendelstedt said. Giving women a chance to umpire in the majors had always been important to his dad, Wendelstedt said. Currently, there are two women umpires in the minor leagues but none yet, in the majors.
"Obviously we want to be at the forefront of getting a female umpire in the majors," Valentine said. "That's something Major League Baseball wants to do."
The art of umpiring is evolving with rule changes that include a pitching timer being introduced to the majors this season and the automated balls and strikes system — also known as robo umps — being used in the minor leagues.
"Obviously, as umpires we just make the calls, and do as directed," Valentine said.